The ‘Dear Black Girl Project’: Love letters to Black women

Published 11/3/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 11/7/2022 12:43 p.m. EST

Dear Black women: If you could write a letter to your younger self, or to your daughters or nieces, what would you say? What wisdom would you impart? What warnings? What you would write to uplift and affirm?

Artist, activist and Baltimore School for the Arts graduate Tamara Payne asked that question of African American women. The answers, proud, tender, honest and resolute, have been literally framed and installed as art on a wall for all to see. They are, like their inspiration, exquisite.

“For me this is about empowerment,” said Payne, whose award-winning “Dear Black Girl Project” is hanging at Nancy by SNAC, a restaurant in Station North, until the end of the year. “We have so much to share, so much to offer. But you would never know it, because the negativity and stereotypes of Black women override anything relevant about us. This is a testimony.”

The show, one of the winners of the Mayor’s Individual Artist awards, features about 15 embroidered pieces with quotes from Black women that Payne stitched onto African fabric. Primarily a painter, sculptor and mosaic artist, she taught herself the craft, using inspiration from her mother, Shirley Elder Parker, as well the women she quoted and ancestors she never knew about.

At the present moment, Black women, as always, find ourselves at a curious cultural position — sometimes on a pedestal, but mostly on a precipice. We are often lauded for our resilience, hard-earned from generations of conflict and burnished by pain, but then called prideful, uppity and full of attitude when we acknowledge that strength.

Our physical features, from our thick hair to our curvy hips and our full lips, are mocked until coveted and lauded when worn by others. Activists and Twitter like to proclaim people should “listen to Black women,” but only conditionally, if the listening doesn’t ask for too much. It’s an entire mess, y’all.

Payne’s work is a deliberate act of elevation, with proof of the subject’s worth sometimes threaded into the fabric deliberately in a way that’s hard to read, so you really have to look closely. To give it more than a cursory look.

When you are used to being a symbol — whether of excess, of oversexualization or scorn — but never quite a full human, being seen simply for yourself and not what you can do for others, it’s galvanizing. It is not about denigrating anyone else, because it’s not about anyone else. It’s about us. If others won’t celebrate us, we will.

“Dear Black Girl,” reads one piece, written by a Tonette H. “Embrace the beauty of your roots. Embrace your afros, your curls, your coils and your kinks. Just be you unapologetically you.”

“Dear Black Girl,” wrote another woman, named Kenyatta. “You can be!”

Isn’t that what we all want? To just be?

Kevin Brown, co-owner of Nancy and a former journalist, has hosted other artists in the space in the past, and said the decision to present “Dear Black Girl” was “an easy ‘Yes.’ It’s transformed the space, brought a new energy in. It’s just so embracing and spiritual and cultivating.”

One of the most striking pieces in the show is not embroidered into fabric, but on plastic draped over a gold mirror. It’s printed with the words of one of the women Payne interviewed, Marketa Wilson. “Dear Black Girl,” it reads, “You are Pulchritudinous.” Those emphatic words are written larger than the rest, and as the viewer reads further and absorbs the proclamation of her sacredness, that she is “everything that is and was,” she is looking at her own reflection.

She is talking about herself.

The opening reception of the show was a glorious, colorful collection of Black women in their fullness — huge, coiled Afros. Braids. Locks. Payne’s own sleek Josephine Baker-esque cropped cut, swirled dramatically at her temples. The invitation asked African American women to dress in any sort of diaspora-inspired attire, and they obliged brilliantly.

Payne conceived, researched, sourced, embroidered and hung the entire show within three months, learning as she went. “She was here at two in the morning, up and down the ladder, up and down the ladder,” Brown said. “It was her drive. She wanted perfection.”

Payne said that the show is a tribute to her mother, “a very resilient woman.” A former fashion student at New York’s Parsons School of Design, she began researching women-led African tribes, and found herself drawn to their textiles and stories. Much of the fabric on which she stitched the words of “Dear Black Girl” was donated by African friends “who gave me scraps” or found pieces.

“It’s exciting to see who we are, the intensity, the vibrancy,” she said. “When you walk into the room, it speaks to you. It radiates.”

As radiant and striking as Payne is, she admits to not always feeling so confident. “There was a time that people would say ‘You’re too skinny!’ or ‘Your complexion!’” she recalls. “Everything about me, even the flaws, I am celebrating today. I’m loving on me like nobody’s business.”

So excited and overwhelmed with Saturday’s opening, she forgot to include an interactive piece of the installation — books in which attendees can write their thoughts and their own messages to their once and future selves. “It’s a work in progress,” she said.

When the show at Nancy ends, “Dear Black Girl” will move to Mount Vernon’s Hotel Revival in the spring. By then, the quotes and the art will have rotated and changed.

“I need more wall space,” Payne said, laughing. “It’s going to look entirely different. It just grows.”

What won’t change is her mission.

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